Charles A. Kollmer

California Institute of Technology


Charles A. Kollmer is a historian of the life sciences, biotechnology, and biomedicine. He completed his dissertation at Princeton University in 2020. From 2020 through 2023, he was the Ahmanson Postdoctoral Instructor in History of Biology at Caltech. Currently, he is a Visitor in History at Caltech and faculty at Flintridge Preparatory School, where he teaches premodern world history and U.S. history. His work on the techniques that investigators in France, Germany, and the Netherlands developed to make sense of fungi, algae, and protozoa during the first half of the twentieth century has appeared in the Journal of the History of Biology and Engaging Science, Technology, and Society. Most recently, he contributed an essay on the cultivation and visualization of the bread mold Neurospora to a forthcoming exhibition catalog on the history of science and art at Caltech. Currently, he is working on a trade book on the history of biotechnology.



“'Life at High Temperatures': Microbes, Ecology, and Technology in an Age of Extremes"

Microbe science has always been a science of extremes, linking the activities of the imperceptibly small to consequences manifesting at scales ranging from the local to the global. This propensity for extremes was also evident in the ambivalent ways that microbe scientists attributed meaning to their work. On the one hand, they frequently emphasized research on microorganisms as essential to arriving at “fundamental” or “general” understandings of the living world and its evolutionary past. On the other hand, the multifarious roles of microbial life also permitted researchers to present their work as having invaluable “applications” relevant to a wide range of human activities and concerns. This essay explores the dynamics of this ambivalence by tracing the formalization of research in “microbial ecology” and the parallel emergence of a commercialized and capital intensive American “biotech industry.” The work of Thomas D. Brock on extremophiles offers a fitting case study on the conceptual plasticity of microbe science, as well as the specific manifestations of this plasticity in the latter half of the twentieth century. At key junctures in his career, Brock insisted that microbes were “more than research tools” and thus warranted careful study “in nature.” In this respect, he contributed to a growing expert discourse that placed microbes at the center of grand ecological and evolutionary narratives. At the same time, however, Brock’s campaign to formalize the field of microbial ecology was itself a product of its environments. Some of his most famous work unfolded in Yellowstone National Park, which he would retrospectively describe as a “heavily visited ‘amusement’ park.” Despite or because of the ways in which the park departed from Brock’s ideal of untrammeled nature, it served as a generative “model ecosystem” for elaborating what Brock presented as general precepts for studying microbes in situ. Ironically, the work in Yellowstone yielded a strain of microorganism called Thermus aquatiqus that, decontextualized from its native hot springs and stored as a culture in the American Type Culture Collection, would play a foundational role in the development of a simple and powerful technique for rapidly multiplying molecules of DNA, a method that was later commercialized, adopted in a range of unanticipated investigatory settings, and now practiced virtually ubiquitously in laboratories across the globe. Drawing on Brock’s prolific published work and unpublished papers, this essay offers insight into the intellectual contortions that were characteristic of ecological thinking in an intellectual milieu in which distinctions between the biological and the technical frequently proved mercurially provisional.